Here’s a spicy hot take—I’m as far as one could get from excited for Universal’s new film The Mummy. This isn’t exactly the movie’s fault, per se, as much as it is the world the movie inhabits, a sort of bizarro realm where a Brian Tyler-scored Tom Cruise action spectacle that’s meant to lay the groundwork for a Marvel-style cinematic universe, complete with Dr. Jekyll in the role of Nick Fury, is the most commercially viable way to make a movie about an ancient mummy’s curse. Now, I can see why the film’s being made, and you can’t exactly fault a studio for wanting to chase the money train that is the MCU, but personally, I couldn’t care less about the picture being released. Because when I think of mummies, I don’t think of Tom Cruise, or Brendan Fraser, or even Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney Jr. I think of Christopher Lee.

After the success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), British horror auteur Terence Fisher set his sights on a new horror classic: The Mummy. Originally released in 1932, The Mummy is the first film to take on the iconography of mummies and ancient curses, and is the sort of pre-code chiller that exemplifies some of the best the golden age had to offer. However, while Fisher’s 1959 take on The Mummy still follows the story of a re-animated mummy searching for a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his ancient lover, the actual identity of the titular mummy is drawn from the much-less-beloved (but possibly superior) 1940 reboot, The Mummy’s Hand. The mummy in that film, Kharis (played by Tom Tyler) is much more of a stereotypical mummy than Karloff’s Imhotep, a shambling zombie wrapped head to toe in bandages. Universal’s three 1940s sequels to The Mummy’s Hand would continue using Kharis, now played by horror icon Lon Chaney Jr., and would build on the lovelorn tragedy of his spiritual predecessor until the latter two films became nothing more than subpar riffs on the original, featuring Kharis in place of Imhotep. 

Terence Fisher would use this formula for his own take on the monster, but unlike the mummy film from 15 years prior (the utterly forgettable The Mummy’s Curse), he managed to turn it into a damn fine film.

The Mummy (1959) tells the story of the Banning family of archaeologists, enlightened Brits led by returning character Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), who’s a lot less like the dashing proto-Indiana Jones of Universal’s series, and more of a proto-Henry Jones, if you get my drift. Much like The Mummy’s Hand, he and his crew have made the poor choice to raid the lost tomb of the Princess Ananka, high priestess of Karnak. Unfortunately for them, their meddling has awoken Ananka’s defender, Kharis (Christopher Lee), and three years later, he’s out to take revenge on the elderly Stephen and his skeptical son, John (Peter Cushing).

Unfortunately, The Mummy is still a classical mummy story, and mummy stories tend to come with more than a little baggage that seems a bit… antiquated by today’s standards. Like most mummy stories, there is a bit of an unfortunate air of imperialism that inspired real-life archaeology, but unlike most mummy stories, the morality of archaeology is actually discussed by John and the enigmatic Mehemet Bey (George Pastell). Still, it’s hard to praise the film as some great show of progress in mummy film history, because that whole “flashback with Christopher Lee in brownface” kind of balances the whole thing out. At least it’s better than when he was Fu Manchu.

On the plus side, like many of the great Hammer films of the era, what really makes The Mummy (1959) special is how absurdly good everything looks. It has the same beautiful palette of the likes of The Curse of Frankenstein, The Curse of the Werewolf, and Dracula, with a world shaded in the most vibrant colors imaginable, from glistening golds to pastel blues and everything in between. Some scenes even have a near-Bava mastery of colorful lighting, drenching the intricate sets in otherworldly shades of red and green. The direction is no slouch either, with the usual Hammer brisk pacing allowing the story to fully develop and play out in a brief running time, ensuring the film can be frequently “slow,” but never boring.

But what’s a great Hammer movie without a great villain? Kharis is portrayed as a tragic and sympathetic villain over all else, exploited by cultists and hopelessly in love with his dead bride. Lee gives a performance for the silent brute not unlike his run as The Creature in the excellent The Curse of Frankenstein, with wide, empty eyes and an animalistic drive for blood. And boy, does he get it. For a good chunk of The Mummy (1959), Kharis plays a role not unlike the Terminator or Nemesis from the Resident Evil 3 video game, showing up unannounced to attack anyone unfortunate enough to incur his wrath.

While there’s nothing in The Mummy (1959) quite like Van Helsing’s encounter with Count Dracula at the end of the 1958 Dracula film in terms of pure kinetic energy and genuinely impressive fight choreography (a rare thing indeed for classic horror), all of Kharis’ encounters are genuinely startling and unnerving. Of course, it’s also impossible to talk about The Mummy (1959) without at least mentioning the legendary climax, an encounter in a murky swamp that ranks among the best set pieces to ever appear in a horror film. It’s a great, moody way to send off a great, moody film—the best of Hammer’s mummy franchise, and one of my personal favorite horror films of all time.

Unfortunately, like so many horror movies, the sequel’s nowhere near as good. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) again focuses on a group of archaeologists desecrating an Egyptian tomb in the name of European knowledge, but this time, the focus is on a sideshow tour of the new discovery by financial backer and showman Alexander King (Fred Clark). None of the characters are particularly charming, but while most of the cast is just forgettable, Alexander King seems to go out of his way to be an unlikable annoyance from his very first scene, where he accidentally invents Turkish delight after archaeologist and de-facto lead character John Bray (Ronald Howard) finds a new Turkish snack “delightful.”

This is about the standard of writing you get from The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, but thankfully, it’s only a matter of time before the uncovered Ra-Antef (a fully bandaged Dickie Owen) escapes from his sarcophagus on the road and begins his vengeful rampage. A few paragraphs back, I compared Christopher Lee’s run as Kharis to the T-800 and Nemesis, and Ra-Antef is no different. While it takes a long time for him to show up, his arrival is marked by busting through walls and choking out anyone within a five-foot radius. There’s even a spectacular moment in the climax where he crushes a worshipper’s head under his heavy foot, a kill that would later be paid tribute to in the mummy segment of Waxwork (1988).

While the mummy himself may be as fun to watch as the first in the series, I’m sorry to report that nothing else is. The direction by Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, Shatter) is hardly as top-notch as Terence Fisher’s, the visuals are rather drab for a Hammer production, and the romantic sub-plot with Bray’s fiancée, Anette (Jeanne Roland) is stilted, boring, and the payoff is a poor rehashing of the original’s reveal. There’s an extra reveal packed into the last ten minutes involving the enigmatic Adam (Terence Morgan), but while the concept for the twist may be interesting, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While I have no hesitation calling The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb weaker than its predecessor, I have to admit, Ra-Antef is one fun mummy.

It is with a heavy heart that I find The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) to be only marginally better than its immediate predecessor. Doubling down on the least memorable elements of the preceding two films, The Mummy’s Shroud is a film that’s not only longer than its two immediate predecessors, it spends a lot less time with supernatural goings-on and a lot more time with dull archaeology and inter-family drama. Of course, none of these aspects would be as grating if they were supported by clever writing, but the script lacks both the economical dialogue of The Mummy (1959) or the strange concepts of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb.

This time around, we focus on another crew of archaeologists who once again poke their noses around an ancient tomb—that of the boy pharaoh Kah-to-Bey. Unfortunately for our explorers, (led by the usual archaeologist and business man duo the franchise loves oh so very much), Kah-to-Bey had a sworn protector in life, the slave Prem (Dickie Owen). As mentioned before, the plot is perhaps the weakest in the series, spending way too much time focusing on the expedition and an attempted takeover by shady businessman Stanley Preston (John Phillips). Prem himself isn’t even revived until halfway through the movie, and everything up until that moment is some of the worst material in Hammer’s horror film series.

Still, much like The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, everything picks up when the mummy begins to walk (the man behind the wraps being none other than Christopher Lee stunt double Eddie Powell). Not only does the directing get inexplicably better during his first kill (some of the hyper-close-ups on eyes are very spaghetti western), the titular mummy acts more like a slasher villain than he ever has before. While Kharis and Ra-Antef were very much shambling brutes, Prem’s kills are a lot more deliberate, ranging from the standard face smashes to burning a man to death with acid to wrapping a poor fellow up in cloth and tossing him out of a window. Plus, Prem gets the greatest last stand of all, a brilliantly staged chase sequence that shows off the best directing in the entire film, complete with the mummy getting peppered by gunfire and slashed by an axe (which he later uses as a weapon). This entire sequence is builds up to what might be among the best villain deaths in Hammer history—a brilliant end for an otherwise forgettable film.

It appears that the worse the rest of a mummy movie gets, the better its evil mummy becomes. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) attempts to buck this trend by removing the mummy from the equation entirely. While it may seem like a terrible choice on paper, by the the time this film came around, the well of stuff one can do with a solitary killer mummy was just about dried up. So now, the focus is on perhaps the most famous element of mummy lore: a curse upon the objects stolen from an Egyptian tomb, causing great misfortune and misery to all who own them.

The objects in question in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb are relics from the tomb of Tera (regular Bond girl Valerie Leon), a wicked Egyptian queen who has been resting in suspended animation for years in her unmarked tomb. But, wouldn’t you know it, a British archaeologist, Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir) has discovered her tomb, and plans to take the relics back to England. But unlike his peers that came before him, the good professor doesn’t want to bring these relics to a museum. No, he’s fallen madly in love with the preserved queen, and wants to rebuild her tomb a bit closer to home—as in, under his house.

When he returns home with his beloved queen and all of her ancient relics, he decides to gift his daughter, Margaret, a very special relic: Queen Tera’s precious ruby ring. Oh, and his daughter? Also played by Valerie Leon.

Yes, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is very much a late Hammer piece, ramping up both the violence and sexuality of the earlier films to a new, previously unheard of height. While the Freudian aspects of the plot certainly cover the latter, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb uses the curse as an excuse to check off the former, with throats being ripped out left and right, and the queen’s severed hand spending quite a bit of time roaming across the desert.

While the violence is hardly shocking (at least by today’s standards), it’s used perfectly, only complimenting the mystery and horror of the mummy’s curse. While the film may be a bit slow, (not quite as slow as The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, but slow) it’s never dull, with just enough tension and intrigue to make every scene count, building up to a spectacular finale that uses Tera and Margaret’s shared actress in a particularly creative way, creating one of the creepiest endings in Hammer’s library and helping to cement Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb as a strong closing for the series.

Hammer would never cover Egypt again in their final monster movie years, instead choosing to focus on classic standbys like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. And while the Mummy series wasn’t quite as strong as some of their other franchises, it’s hard to deny that they were always interesting, with secret tombs and desolate museums being a fine change of pace from your standard spooky laboratories and haunted castles. They may not have been the most famous Hammer films around, but as far as the depressingly sparse mummy subgenre goes, it’s hard to deny that Hammer put out some of the best of them. No matter how Universal’s reboot goes, I hope that one day, sooner rather than later, the classic bandaged beasts can strike again.

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